Bill in Kentucky legislature would restore police power to arrest for misdemeanors
Police "ought to have more discretion in who they arrest, instead of just issuing a citation,” lawmaker says
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A 2011 Kentucky law that required police officers to issue citations for many misdemeanors -- including possession of marijuana -- instead of making arrests would be scrapped under a proposed bill.
Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, a Democrat from Lexington, and Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, filed a bill in the House Jan. 14 that would give police officers the discretion to arrest people who are charged with misdemeanors.
The law currently says police "shall" issue a citation instead of making an arrest for dozens of misdemeanors, as long as officers believe the suspect is not a danger to himself or others and will appear in court to answer the charge. House Bill 250 would change the language to "may" issue a citation.
"The local law enforcement feels that needs to be changed," Smart said in an interview Wednesday. "They (police) ought to have more discretion in who they arrest, instead of just issuing a citation."
Palumbo did not return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment. The bill was sent the to the House judiciary committee on Tuesday.
Jail administrators in Kentucky had urged passage of the 2011 law to cut down on overcrowding, and other advocates said it's a waste of tax dollars to put misdemeanor offenders in jail.
"If they pass this, it's going to reload up the jail with 'minor offense' people who could be out working," said Louisville attorney Paul Gold, adding that it could again lead to people being jailed for small amounts of marijuana. "I don’t see the necessity of this legislation."
Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton said in an email that the proposed change has the "potential to result in more jail bookings and increase in the average daily population of the jail."
The number of jail bookings in 2010 was 45,161 and the average daily population of the jail was 1,930 inmates, 137 over capacity, Bolton said.
"By contrast, we began to see a steady reduction over the next four years, and by 2014, there were 36,740 bookings with an average daily population of 1,851 (only 58 over capacity)," Bolton wrote.
Still, he said Metro Corrections "supports legislation that promotes public safety and the safety of our police and law enforcement partners."
"We will need to be prepared with the appropriate level of resources that may result, including added capacity, medical care, staffing/overtime, food services etc."
Dwight Mitchell, a spokesman for the Louisville Metro Police Department, said "we would be in favor of such legislation if it were to pass." He declined to elaborate, saying the department could not discuss pending legislation.
At least in part because of the 2011 law, Metro Corrections saw a sharp drop in bookings for misdemeanor drug arrests -- from more than 3,100 in the 2009-2010 fiscal year to less than 2,000 in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, a 38 percent decrease, according to jail records.
Louisville Metro Police arrested 15,818 people on misdemeanor charges in 2011. That number fell to 13,192 by the end of 2013, a nearly 17 percent decrease, according to data from LMPD.
More recent records were not immediately available.
In August 2014, Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad told WDRB that issuing a citation to someone who has several ounces of marijuana is "a little odd."
Judges and lawyers said the 2011 law effectively made possession of marijuana - eight ounces or less - like a traffic ticket.
Instead of multiple hearings involving lawyers and possibly the arresting officers, the cases, especially those involving small amounts of marijuana, often are handled with just one appearance. The person cited pays a fine or agrees to take treatment classes, among other possible resolutions.
More worrisome for police though, Conrad said, are other misdemeanors police are no longer allowed to make arrests for, such as disorderly conduct and minor theft.
If, for example, police catch a person stealing something out of someone's car, like a radio, it could be a misdemeanor in which the officer will issue a citation and "let you go down the road."
"From a customer service point of view, we have a victim there who questions our officers on who has the most rights in that situation." Conrad said.
And police called to deal with disorderly conduct in neighborhoods often have to make repeated trips because they are only allowed to cite the person instead of making an arrest.
"It creates a frustration, not only for our officers but for citizens as well," he said. "There is that delay that creates that perception from the community's point of view that we are not able to do much to help solve problems."
In an interview Wednesday, Smart said the law currently protects repeat offenders, allowing them to go free.
"We’re just trying to keep everybody safe," she said.
Metro Corrections Director Bolton told WDRB in 2014 that there is "no question" the 2011 state law has been one of several efforts that has had an impact on jail population.
It costs Louisville taxpayers $68 a day to house an inmate.
The law does allow officers to make arrests for some misdemeanors, such as fourth-degree assault, second- and third-degree sexual abuse, menacing, carrying a concealed deadly weapon and driving under the influence.
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